Spending A Day At Jupiter's WWBA With A College Assistant Coach
Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., has long been one of the biggest events on both the recruiting and scouting calendar. For scouts, its impact is clear: it’s the biggest and best fall event, drawing premium players around the country to one place for a weekend.
That used to be the draw for college coaches as well. But as the recruiting process has sped up, it has become rare for high-end players to be uncommitted going into the fall of their senior year or, in many cases, their junior year. Still, dozens of college coaches come to the event every year to watch their commits and the uncommitted players that do participate.
PG’s decision a few years ago to move its WWBA Freshman World Championship to the same weekend in nearby West Palm Beach gives coaches another event to see players and many split time between the two tournaments. But baseball’s new recruiting calendar, which went into effect in August, shrunk the fall evaluation period. With less time to go out on the road, the question was would the Jupiter/West Palm Beach double bill still be the crown jewel of the fall? The answer seemed to be “yes,” because the recruiters were still out in force this year.
To get a better understanding of why Jupiter and West Palm Beach are so important to recruiters, I spent one day of the weekend tagging along with a Power Five Conference assistant coach. Because NCAA rules prohibit coaches from speaking on the record about unsigned recruits, our coach is anonymous, as are other coaches in the story. Team names and specific recruits’ identities have also been removed.
No coach is particularly thrilled with scouting freshmen in high school. Nearly everyone believes baseball’s recruiting process has become too accelerated. We’re watching players who have yet to play a game for their high school. The size disparity among players on the field is significant—the biggest would not physically look out of place among college freshmen and the smallest are still waiting to hit puberty.
But at the complex this morning there are about a dozen coaches, all from Power Five Conference schools. They may not like it, because they know its more difficult to get an evaluation right for a player at this age, but very few of them are willing to completely disengage with the process altogether and risk falling behind their peers.
Our coach has been coming to Jupiter for more than a decade, but he says he might not come if he couldn’t also go to West Palm Beach.
“It’s been hit or miss whether I come to Jupiter the last few years,” he says. “I’m here primarily for the 2023s (graduates).”
None of us are going to be here for the 2023s for much longer—dark clouds are rolling into West Palm Beach. It’s the third inning and our coach, who was standing down the line, has moved behind the plate, where he gives another assistant coach in his conference a heads-up that the rain is coming. With that, he keeps moving toward the parking lot.
“I’m going to sit in the car,” he says. “I’m not going to get soaked because the thing about getting soaked this early in the day is you’re wet the rest of the day, and I’m not going back to the hotel to change.”
The rain begins to fall as we head to our cars and, not long after, it’s pouring.
“This is when the day turns into a goat screw.”
It’s still raining, and the players have made their way to their cars. There’s more rain on the way and it’s not going to stop any time soon. Later in the weekend, I’ll learn that in the process of converting the area we’re sitting on from a landfill into usable land, a layer of concrete was poured to seal the landfill. That means the fields don’t drain particularly well and, this being the backfields, there are no tarps. As a result, rainouts are common in West Palm Beach.
Even without that knowledge, our coach has decided it’s time to make a move. It’s also still raining in Jupiter, but the weather there looks like it will clear up in the afternoon. He’s going to take this opportunity to go back to the hotel and get a quick workout in.
We’ll soon learn that the next game on our coach’s slate, scheduled for 12:40 p.m. in Jupiter, will now be played at 3:30. That gives us a break of a few hours and a chance to eat lunch.
We’re back in Jupiter, deep on one of the 14 backfields in the complex at Roger Dean Stadium that houses the Cardinals and Marlins. Beyond being the premier travel ball tournament on the calendar, it’s also the biggest scouting event of the fall. Major league teams send nearly their entire scouting staffs to the event and it’s not uncommon to see high-level executives, even general managers, in attendance. It’s so big that many scouts and coaches have golf carts to more easily move around the complex. At the big games, the golf carts line up three, four, five deep behind the plate with others pulling up along the foul lines all the way to the fence.
We are not at one of those games. This game has some solid college prospects in it, but one of the teams is not its organization’s “A” squad and features a lot of 2021 graduates. That means the heavy hitters are elsewhere and thus there a just a few scouts and coaches in attendance. We’re here because it includes one player committed to our coach’s school.
Even with all the 2021s in this game, the majority of players on the field are already committed. Jupiter used to be an event where coaches could find players for their team next season. But as players have started committing at younger and younger ages, it has become less about finding players and more about finding out what you already have.
At a game like this, our coach is checking in on his commit. Though flipping commitments is still generally considered uncouth in baseball, it does happen. So it’s important to show the player that he’s important enough to come see.
Coaches are also looking to see what their commitments look like now, so they can start figuring out who will be in play this spring for the draft. If a player is a draft risk, it’s time to start re-recruiting him—this time to come to college instead of signing out of the draft. And coaches can also pick up things they might need to work on once the player does get to campus.
In large part, however, this is about continuing to build a relationship with the player and his family.
“It’s an easy watch,” our coach says. “You’re watching like a fan, not an evaluator.”
In between at-bats of the commit, our coach is trying to figure out what’s happening in West Palm Beach. The rain has wreaked havoc on the schedule and most games have been postponed until tomorrow. A few, including one he wants to see, have been pushed to the Santaluces Complex, a set of fields in a local park.
Only, no one seems to have told the grounds crew. The teams have arrived at the complex to find standing water on the infield and no one around to work on the field.
As the game draws closer to a conclusion, it’s not looking likely that we will have to go back to the Freshman WWBA. That would mean our coach has another break in his schedule, which he’s excited about.
“Eat a sausage dog, drink some caffeine, check in with my wife to see what she’s doing,” he says.
The game ends when it hits its two-hour time limit and we make the quick drive to the other side of the complex. We’ve just arrived when the coach of the freshman team we were hoping to watch texts. The game is on after all. It’s slated for a 7 p.m. slot at the Santaluces Complex, which is 40 minutes away in Lake Worth. It’s now just after 5:30, leaving enough time to get some dinner and get down to the complex.
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There are 10 schools represented at the Santaluces Complex, including half the Southeastern Conference, not to mention multiple agencies, drawn in part by the best and most talented team in the tournament. While there’s plenty of talent on the field, the game we specifically came to see has not started. The grounds crew is still trying to get the field playable after the rain.
Because the assistant coaches spend so much time on the road at many of the same events, a strong camaraderie exists among them. Even at this game, where there’s more true evaluation happening, there’s plenty of chatter behind the plate.
They’re also about to be off-the-road recruiting for several months. The fall evaluation period ends after this weekend, meaning they won’t be able to go back out until the spring. This is the first year of the shortened recruiting calendar, which has generated mixed reviews.
One thing they definitely do appreciate is the chance to be home a little bit more.
“I told my wife I’m off the road from Monday to March 1st,” one coach said.
“My wife said that’s entirely too long,” our coach said.
By 8 p.m., the game has hit a lull. The favorites are cruising and have their best pitchers out. Meanwhile, the other game still has not started. Soon, it will become clear that the field just won’t be ready to play tonight. They’ll have to wait until the other game ends to use the one playable field.
That leaves the coaches plenty of time to talk. The conversation covers topics from quitting dip to previous late nights on the recruiting trail to winter plans. Eventually, they compare strategies for talking to their children about Santa Claus. One prominent assistant says he’ll never tell his children that Santa isn’t real.
The pitcher everyone has come to see is finally on the mound. He’s long, lean and projectable and it’s easy to see why we’re here. The chatter has stopped, and everyone is locked in to evaluate.
He’s throwing in the low 80s and has a big curveball. His control is good in the first inning, not as good in the second. Overall, he offers a strong package. More velocity will come as he physically matures, and it’s easy to see him contributing on a college campus. The question is how much will he develop over the next four years? It’s an unknowable question but one that our coach and his colleagues are tasked with answering.
A couple coaches trickle out after the second inning, and after one more inning the remaining coaches decide en masse that they’ve seen enough and head for their cars.
Was this evening worth it? The 70-minute round-trip drive and the two-hour wait? Our coach says yes.
“We’ll all jump in on him,” our coach says. “But he has a lot to like. He’s athletic. For his age, he has good arm strength and it’s easy.
“It’s dumb, but we’ll all jump in.”
It’s almost 10 p.m. We’ve been at this almost 12 hours already, but there’s one final time slot in Jupiter that’s about to start and our coach has a pitcher scheduled to relieve in one of the games. So he’s heading back north to catch as much of that outing as he can.
Back in Jupiter, there’s still a healthy amount of people at the complex for 10:30 p.m. The best pitchers typically draw the night games, so it’s mostly scouts, but our coach is far from the only one of his colleagues left.
This final game of the night will be worth it, too. We made it in time to see the commit take the mound and pitch his few innings. This is back to being an easy watch and relationship building. If he ends up being a draft risk, being able to say “I was at your game in Jupiter at 11 p.m.” might mean something.
At 11:18 p.m., however, our coach is ready to call it a night. It’s been about 13 hours since the first game of the day began and he’ll repeat this again tomorrow before getting on a plane home Sunday.